As with many old-time musicians, Samantha Bumgarner grew up around music and started playing at a young age. Her father Has Biddix was a fiddler – he did not want her to play “the devil’s box,” and so she had to teach herself on his fiddle while he was away from home. She also learned to play the gourd banjo, becoming so skilled that her father bought her a banjo and she began playing with him around the community from the age of 15. She also performed at and won numerous banjo and fiddle contests throughout her life.
In April 1924, she went to New York with her friend Eva Davis to record for the Columbia label, making them the first women to record “hillbilly music.” They recorded several songs or instrumental pieces in total – some together and some as solos – including “Big-Eyed Rabbit,” “Cindy in the Meadows,” and “Georgia Blues.” Interestingly, two of Samantha’s solo pieces were the square dance numbers “Shout Lou” and “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” with her calling out the dance steps. A press release sent out by Columbia about their records stated: “The Columbia Phonograph Company reports that the newly released records by the musical discoveries from North Carolina, now recording exclusively for Columbia New Process records, are providing excellent sellers. They sing and accompany themselves on banjo and violin. Their specialty is singing and playing real traditional American music, songs that are part of our national musical lore.”
Samantha performed at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, annually from 1929 until 1959, and it is through her performances there that a young Pete Seeger became interested in learning to play the five-string banjo. Her influence on his musical direction has been felt around the world. She performed around the country during the 1930s and had her own radio program on one of the “border radio” stations near Del Rio, Texas. She was also invited by Lunsford to perform at a White House concert of American music hosted by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939 – special guests included King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England.